When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, he inherited a party that was divided: between MPs who thought he was a surefire winner and those who thought he would fail to meet the challenge of running the country. Eleven months into his time in office, the Prime Minister has united his MPs: they now agree that he is an election winner, but a growing number, perhaps a majority, think that he is not capable of running the show and perhaps never will be.
It’s not only the maladroit handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but the overall direction of the government. One of Johnson’s strengths is that he doesn’t share Westminster’s reflexive opposition to the so-called U-turn, and as a result his government has swerved out of danger on several occasions, when another, more stubborn politician might have collided with the brick wall of public opinion. But the government moves into dangerous territory too often, and most privately think that the underlying cause of the recent difficulties is Johnson’s lack of grip.
Although the government still enjoys an opinion poll lead, MPs look at the surge in support for Scottish independence and the tricky tasks of reviving the British economy and navigating Brexit, and conclude that the only way is down: at least with this Prime Minister, and this Downing Street team in charge.
With the exception of New Labour’s meticulously stage-managed first 100 days in office, most neophyte prime ministers have a tricky introduction to the demands of No 10. Johnson, like all British prime ministers in possession of a majority, enjoys huge constitutional power but oversees an underpowered executive. Most prime ministers take a while to learn how to deliver their agenda. The difference is that Johnson, unlike his predecessors, had the experience of eight years as mayor of London and ought, therefore, to have taken to the top job quicker. Some Conservative MPs fear that these are not mere teething troubles, but the inevitable result of a governing style heavily reliant on delegation and bombast, and short on focus and control.
Johnson’s inner circle, unsurprisingly, don’t share that thesis. His chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, was typically combative in a Zoom call with special advisers on 22 June. The government’s recent difficulties, he told them, are the result of the media returning to its old Remain-Leave trenches; the press is attacking the No 10 team because of its victories in the 2016 referendum and 2019 general election. Instead of being distracted by media tittle-tattle, Cummings said, the government was focusing on the big issues, with reform of the state high up on the agenda.
Cummings’s tendency to refer back to his electoral triumphs alarmed several on the call. Conservatives worry that Downing Street lacks competent administrators and successful project managers. Few doubt that Cummings knows how to win elections: what troubles them is that, as Michael Gove’s special adviser at the Department for Education (DfE) from 2010 to 2014, his signature policy achievement was to deliver a souped-up version of Tony Blair’s school reforms at huge political cost to Gove. They worry that, ultimately, the government’s policy successes will be relatively small and achieved at disproportionate political cost.
Downing Street does have one success story of sorts on the horizon: the merger of the Department for International Development (Dfid) into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This will create, in September, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. (One civil servant joked that the correct way to pronounce the new department’s name closely mirrored their reaction to the news.) Supporters of the initiative say that the new department will allow Britain’s development spending to focus on advancing its diplomatic interests; opponents (who include Blair and David Cameron) point out that it will no longer be focused on poverty reduction.
Whether this is good or bad news, it has been conducted more effectively than most Whitehall mergers, which tend to be announced midway through cabinet reshuffles. But in this case, the preparations have been made months in advance. The two departments have had a common staff of junior ministers since 2017, and both Johnson’s international development secretaries have had a subordinate role to Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office.
Dfid officials had been instructed to find ways they could work more closely with the FCO. That the true purpose of the exercise was kept secret has, understandably, provoked resentment among civil servants, many of whom found out about the development on Twitter. But it remains a better planned reorganisation than anything else a recent government has done. Evidence, perhaps, that Cummings’s critics are wrong about him and Johnson’s No 10?
Perhaps. The truth of the matter, however, is that most of the groundwork had been done by Theresa May; she also hoped to reorient the government’s development spending towards its foreign policy objectives and spoke of having a new “realist” foreign policy.
In truth, the merger – which has angered so many Blairites and Cameroons – is uncomfortably reminiscent of Dominic Cummings’s tenure at the DfE: it creates a great deal of sound and fury, but the reality is that the government is building on what has gone before, not upending it. The case that this Prime Minister and these aides have the necessary patience and clarity of objective to reform the state, let alone anything else, remains unproven.
This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football